The stakes are high. As the District’s population booms and young professionals pour into new luxury developments, low-income residents are being displaced at one of the highest rates in the country, according to one recent study.
“It’s another step toward dealing with our housing crisis,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “We changed the framework to provide greater emphasis on the need for housing and affordable housing, as well as clarifying some ambiguities that have led to court cases.”
The framework is just the first step, a collection of priorities and principles to guide development decisions.
The administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) says it will release next week the rest of the plan, which will detail policies related to transportation, environmental protection, green space and art. The plan, which is supposed to chart city growth over the next 20 years, must be approved by the council.
Andrew Trueblood, the city’s top planning official, said in a statement that the administration is “working closely with Council to ensure the language as passed supports the long-term vision and needs of DC residents.”
The council last approved a comprehensive plan in 2006 and updated it in 2011.
Zoning decisions — including approval of large-scale projects and changes to community density — must conform to the comprehensive plan.
Advocacy groups and some neighbors have successfully challenged some projects in court, arguing that zoning approvals were inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.
When the Bowser administration first proposed a new framework for the plan last year, administration officials sought to stop costly legal delays by reducing avenues for protests.
Critics said her proposed changes made the rules surrounding development opaque and would make it harder to challenge projects that intensify gentrification.
Mendelson said the mayor’s approach made the planning document too vague and general. He said his approach requires zoning commissioners to explain in their decisions how they balanced competing priorities laid out in the comprehensive plan.
Lawmakers also added language to prioritize affordable housing in land-use decisions and to consider racial equity.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has served on the council since 1991, said the plan is a reminder of how far the city has come from its financial crisis of the mid-1990s, when its bond rating was in the “junk” category and Congress imposed a board to assume control of its finances.
“Certainly back in the early days the idea of a comprehensive plan was to stop the hemorrhaging of the city,” said Evans, the council’s longest-serving member. “The issues we face today aren’t declining population and declining businesses, but rather the opposite.”
Some said the framework could have gone further to prevent unchecked development that has been forcing longtime residents out of the city.
“I’m concerned there’s a rush to development without community input,” said council member Trayon White Sr. (D), whose Ward 8 in Southeast is now feeling development pressures that have transformed many neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River.
Mendelson on Tuesday also announced new developments in the ethics investigation into Evans.
He tapped council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to chair an ad hoc committee to review the findings by a law firm that has been hired to determine whether Evans used his public office for personal gain. Evans, who has worked for several law firms and owned a private consulting business while serving on the council, is also the target of a federal grand jury investigation.
In a surprising move, Mendelson said every lawmaker except for Evans would serve on the committee, which he said signals the significance of their investigation and “adds weight to what we are doing.” The committee is to decide potential sanctions, based on the results of the investigation.
Mendelson said the lawyers have interviewed most of the witnesses in their investigation and expect to produce a report by the end of the month.
The council previously reprimanded Evans and stripped him of his committee chairmanship.
Evans also resigned from the board of Metro after a different law firm hired by the transit agency found ethics violations.
The D.C. Council also unanimously approved emergency legislation to end nearly all cooperation between the District’s jails and federal immigration enforcement — unless federal officials have a court order. A spokeswoman for the mayor said administration officials believed the bill “institutionalizes our current posture.”
Lawmakers also voted to strip the mayor of powers that allowed her to move the traffic camera program from the Police Department to the Transportation Department without council approval.
They backed emergency legislation by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) to rename Columbus Day as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
It’s the latest jurisdiction to rethink honoring the European explorer because of his history of brutality toward Native Americans. Evans and Mendelson voted “present,” with the former citing opposition from constituents of Italian descent.